Germany's lessons on use of wiretaps

March 16, 2006|By NIELS C. SORRELLS

BERLIN -- One would think a country that sets 29,017 wiretaps in a given year would catch some terrorists. One would find the results mixed.

One might also think that the country with the 29,017 wiretaps is the United States. One would be wrong.

The country with the 29,017 wiretaps (2004 figures) is Germany. That amount dwarfs the U.S. total of 3,464 for the same year (though, to be fair, the U.S. number does not include figures for the recently revealed National Security Agency wiretap program, which remain undisclosed).

And how well have all these taps helped Germany combat terrorism? Not terribly. What might the United States be able to learn from Germany, one of the world's leaders in wiretapping? A lot.

It is important to note that not all of the German wiretaps are aimed at terrorists. Many are devoted to domestic crime. But with all that listening, the number of terrorist operations brought to light in Germany solely because of an attentive agent listening in on the phone line is negligible - two at most since 2001.

Which is not to say that there is not a terror presence in Germany.

The 9/11 pilots met in Hamburg and allegedly made some of their plans there. A man went to trial in Berlin last year for allegedly planning to set off bombs to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Another trial just concluded for a man charged with helping German residents find their way to Iraq to fight the U.S. occupation.

And this most definitely is not meant to suggest that wiretaps are useless. Information about an alleged plot to assassinate then-Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was gleaned through a wiretap. Part of the case against the Berlin bomber was based on a telephone conversation by an associate that was taped.

But of the 29,000-plus cases - and the annual number has been growing since a couple of thousand cases in 1994 - there has been no public case yet in which authorities stumbled across a group of terrorists in the midst of planning an attack just because agents were listening in on telephone conversations.

Any successes were targeted taps against a specific person who was already under suspicion, usually in conjunction with other investigative methods. Quality, not quantity, seems to be the key with wiretaps.

The U.S. success rate with wiretaps is not much better. Though wiretaps have been used to provide evidence against individuals, these people had somehow already drawn attention to themselves, such as in the case of a group of men in Portland, Ore., now in jail on conviction of terrorism charges.

Although wiretaps eventually were used in the case, the suspects first came to the attention of authorities not through an overheard conversation but because a police officer stumbled across them in the woods weeks after the 9/11 attacks. At the time, the men were toting guns and wearing Arab-style robes. One doesn't need a wiretap to get suspicious in that kind of a situation.

So before the United States starts to consider matching Germany in the wiretaps race, officials should consider that far-reaching fishing expeditions so far have tied up a lot of resources with little result, other than to make many Americans distrustful of their government.

Where the wiretaps have played a valuable role is when they've been used to follow up an informant's tip or a terrorist's slip, both of which have a far better field record than indiscriminate taps in kicking off terror investigations.

With Round Two of the Patriot Act about to start and with lingering concerns about the government's role in tapping phone lines and storing data on U.S. citizens, this would be a good time to accept that while surveillance tools are valuable, they need to be focused to be of any real use.

Ideally, eavesdropping will complement other investigative tools, and not become the sole source of law enforcement information-gathering. But recent trends show that the U.S. government is gorging itself on information. It has yet to prove that it is making good use of the information.

Having information and understanding it are two very different things. That would be a point well made before we follow the German model much further.

Niels C. Sorrells is a journalist who is working on a book comparing how Germany and the United States use surveillance to combat terrorism. His e-mail is

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